Friday, October 26, 2012

Gradius III (SNES)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
10 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1991

Within the famous Konami series the original Gradius III is regarded as an absolute experience in pain. Very few shmups have the honor of being straightforwardly classified as "pure hell" or "downright impossible" by so many people. My time with it so far consists of a few hours with the Gradius Collection on the PSP, and suffice it to say I didn't get past the bubble stage... Gradius III on the SNES is a completely different story though. Famous for some massive slowdown, this port leaves no doubt about its watered down difficulty and it’s not nearly close to the arcade version as far as its legendary challenge goes. Nevertheless it’s still a valid option for those who want to have an idea about how the series evolved from the already tough as nails Gradius II.

In a nutshell, the SNES port of Gradius III is nothing but a simplified version of the arcade original. Stages are shorter, lack a few key enemies and are occasionally rearranged. Bullet count is considerably lower as a consequence of the softer rank progression. Even the weapon configurations available in Edit mode have been messed around a little. All things considered, the game probably offers a good entry point for Gradius neophytes due to the lower difficulty and the faithful graphics conversion. The soundtrack does take a hit, but since the compositions are so good it still retains the magic that makes this series so loved among shmup fans. It’s awesome, I know there's no relation at all between both franchises but I can't help but feel a vivid Sonic the Hedgehog vibe in the BGM for the volcano stage.

Damn, won't these Moai stop opening their mouths?

Giving the player a higher degree of freedom was Konami’s main innovation in Gradius III. Dressing up the ship at the start of a credit determines half the game’s difficulty, and doing it wisely is paramount if you want to have better chances at winning. Besides the four default configurations seen in Gradius II, an all-new “Edit mode” allows the player to select every item in the weapon array from several choices available (some of them exclusive to Edit mode). Since I tend to stick to the classic configurations it was hard for me to start editing my weapon array, but the “reduce” shield is just irresistible. It shrinks the hitbox and is able to absorb two hits before Vic Viper gets back to its normal size. A new slot in the weapon array under the exclamation symbol makes it possible to activate speed-down, full options (sacrifices spare lives for options), force field and mega crush (a smart bomb). Mega crush is the default item in the extra slot for all standard configurations.

Gradius III starts out nicely on a sand stage guarded by an insect boss. The absence of the sand lions is a bit disappointing but the great initial atmosphere isn’t affected. However, it’s clear that the rest of the game doesn’t excel at being a step-up from Gradius II in the same way the previous chapter did when compared to the first game. The arcade version did that only in terms of difficulty, whereas the SNES port throws the challenge boost out the window and presents itself as a softer ride that totally fits the console format. Expect staple levels such as the volcano, the moai, the high speed scramble and another boss rush comprised of several bosses from Gradius II. New to the adventure is a plant stage, two levels reminiscent of Salamander (the flaming rocks + the organic walls) and the bubble field in the second stage, which is actually a revamped crystal level.

Missing from the port is the Tetris block stage, the awkward 3D intermission, the maze after the volcano tunnel and the final escape after the last boss, as well as the most demanding enemies such as the huge moai heads, the fire dragon, the spinning boss from Salamander and the walker in the fortress stage (replaced by two destructible mechanical spiders like the one from Gradius II). The organic level is now the last one, and the number of secret areas was increased from 2 to 5. I only ventured to get into the first of these bonus areas – they come with very few enemies and lots of items, including 1UPs (green capsules) and bonus points (faint yellow capsules – don’t let any of them pass and they’ll be worth 1000 points each). If you go into a bonus area and die you get sent back to the regular stage and can’t access the bonus area again, if you succeed you bypass the boss and reappear at the next pre-stage section.

Gradius III for the SNES played on EASY
(courtesy of YouTube user Ataristic)

Subject of frequent mockery, the slowdown in this game is often used to showcase the SNES bad fame of being a slow console. With the exception of the subterranean volcano walls, where the screen slows down even if you don’t shoot a single bullet, it isn’t really that much of an issue. It does make the journey easier, that’s a fact, and probably plays a pivotal psychological role in the general consensus that the game is a bit too long. Anyway, after a while I wasn’t bothered by the slowdown anymore. I won't complain about the length of the game either. Ten stages of lighter Gradius goodness might be something people take for granted these days, but I definitely miss the Konami of old.

After tampering with several weapon configurations I settled with regular missiles, double shot, crushing laser, regular options, reduce and speed-down. I wish I could have the regular laser as well, but it’s not an available option in Edit mode. The mega crush was tempting, but I like to have my speed reduced after I get past the plant boss, the high speed section and the boss rush. Gradius III is often regarded as an easy shmup (for Gradius standards, that is), but that’s only true as long as you don’t die in later levels. You can build a respectable life stock with the 1UPs inside bonus areas and the merciful extend scheme (20.000 points for the first extend, further ones at every 70.000 points), but don’t even think about dying inside the fortress. Depending on the checkpoint you’re at it gets really tough to put things back together. As usual, in the second loop enemies fire faster bullets and drop suicide bullets when destroyed.

I reached stage 2-7 on my best scoring run on NORMAL. Do I feel prepared to try the arcade version of Gradius III on the PS2? Probably not, but that’s the beauty of this genre. We’re never ready but we go on anyway.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Mega SWIV (Mega Drive)

Vertical / Arena
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Sales Curve
Published by Time Warner Interactive in 1994

For those wondering, SWIV stands for Special Weapons Intercept Vehicles. Third in a series of shooters that started with the awesome Silkworm, Mega SWIV is actually a port of the Super Nintendo game Super SWIV, more commonly known in the west as Firepower 2000. Besides being a port, one of the other distinctions of Mega SWIV is that it was released only in Europe. And just like another European exclusive Mega Drive shmup (Xenon 2 Megablast) this game is region-locked, so in order to enjoy it in consoles from other regions be aware that you might need to use bypass cartridges. Going by the YouTube videos I've checked it also seems that the game runs faster when played on a 60 Hz console, a very welcome increase in pace if you ask me.

There are two ways to play this game, either with a helicopter (SWIV-1) or a jeep (SWIV-2). In a 2-player game each person pilots one of them, but if you’re playing solo you need to press A, B or C at the start screen to choose/change the craft. There it’s also possible to remap the controls, which by default work with B for main weapon, A for main weapon change and C for special weapon. Throughout the game weapon items are released by destroying yellow square bunkers on the ground. Main weapons can be bullet (needle gun), flame, plasma (spread shot), laser (flashing laser beams) or ionic (a straight shot that splits to the sides in 90ยบ upon hitting something). Laser and ionic are unavailable from the start, appearing in later levels only. All of them are powered up separately by taking successive items of the same type, up to seven upgrade levels.

Welcome to the jungle, we've got fun and games

Special weapons are indicated by letters. H stands for homing bullets, X fires a single batch of straight missiles and S triggers an expanding ring of fire. The most recent weapon collected is always the next one to be used (LIFO stack). It's possible to stock as many special weapons as you want, but only twelve of them are shown below the score counter at any given time. X is the most powerful (a single one can take down any of those hatches of the third boss) while S is excellent to take care of enemies that are closing in. H is the weakest one and tends to drift in circling movements, often failing to hit the desired target. Special weapons aren't lost upon death, and as long as there are special weapons in stock the level of each main weapon is only visible while you’re cycling them with button A or briefly after you die.

Every once in a while the player might come across a small area concealing a bubble. Land a few shots to release the bubble and take it for a temporary invincibility shield, or shoot it again to trigger a screen-clearing explosion. The last item, the star, is mostly released by tanks but can be dropped by other enemies as well. Besides being worth 100 points, at the end of the stage each star contributes with 1.000 extra points.

Death for both SWIVs comes with a reduction of one upgrade level for all weapons, therefore dying repeatedly can lead the player to a dangerous underpowered condition. As a rule of thumb, whenever I lost the spread capability of the plasma weapon I would consider myself in dire straits. I used to think the helicopter was the best option to play the game with, now I’m not so sure because there are clear pros and cons for both types of vehicles. The heli crashes onto airborne enemies, but it’s able to fly anywhere around the screen and is absolutely immune to ground enemies. The jeep crashes against any ground obstacle that takes damage (including item bunkers and shield holders – release them first, collect next), but can fire in 8 directions (shoot to lock the aim, stop shooting to change direction) and is absolutely immune to airborne enemies. The jeep can fall off cliffs (last stage only) and be hindered by walls, but whenever it gets squished by something the scrolling takes over and sends it forward. There’s no jump input for the jeep in Mega SWIV, unlike what happens in Firepower 2000.

With a strong military theme and a perennial Amiga flavor - reminiscent of the previous chapter in the series - Mega SWIV stands tall as a decent cross-platform adaptation. On gameplay merits it’s as close as it gets to the original material, unlike some criticized examples such as Thunder Spirits (bridged by Thunder Force AC, but you get my point). Minor differences in relation to the SNES original appear in the slightly less colorful graphics, lighter explosions and subdued sound effects. A few enemies are missing here and there, and since the game was made less intense the annoying off-screen bullets when you move across the wide horizontal span of the playing field aren't such a pain. That alone should make the Mega Drive port the easier version, but the game also counts with a merciful extend scheme that grants a new life for every 50.000 points scored. The bonus based on the number of remaining lives at the end of the game was removed though, but this doesn’t really matter because there's no time out and you can kill cannon fodder forever on the last boss for whatever score you want to achieve… Even though the maximum life stock shown during the actual gameplay is 9, the real number of lives can be glanced in between stages.

Introduction and first stage with the helicopter (50 Hz)
(courtesy of YouTube user ShiryuGL)

Due to the unusual combination of a helicopter and a jeep, Mega SWIV might certainly be the best co-op shmup experience to be had on the Mega Drive. However, much of the fun is in experimenting with both types of ship. A brief animated intro sets up a nice preamble for the action, also showing info stats for each SWIV craft. The beginning of the game seems a bit generic (the first stage is exclusive to the Mega Drive version though), with grayish terrains followed by deserts and forests. Jeep players will get to pilot an inertia-propelled boat on the second half of the fourth stage. During the fifth stage you need to pilot a jet, and then the game resumes in a volcano-filled area before you venture into the final enemy fortress. The music fits the theme well, I particularly enjoy how bassy it sounds.

The truncated scoring system is a letdown, but Mega SWIV can provide some decent shooting fun if you're able to cope with the excessive horizontal wobbling. I had already cleared the game with the heli, so this time around I decided to use the jeep. Beating it again wasn’t as hard as I expected, but it certainly was more fun. I scored barely over 1 million and then decided to kill the last boss with the J special weapon (it comes down from the top automatically once you get to the boss).

Note: this text was cross-posted with minor changes on Sega-16.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Strike Witches (Xbox 360)

Checkpoints OFF
5 Difficulty levels
6 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Cyberfront
Published by Cyberfront in 2010

It's difficult to find shooters inspired by other entertainment media that are held in high regard by the community. More often than not they don't go past the likes of pure fan service, being eventually ignored and relegated to sad footnotes. Does anyone seriously care about Geppy-X, Bokan To Ippatsu, Tekkaman Blade, Thunderbirds (NES), Gatchaman - The Shooting or Super Airwolf for the Mega Drive? Sure there are exceptions to this, such as Macross - Scrambled Valkyrie and Silver Surfer, but they're few and far between. In 2010 the category was expanded on the Xbox 360 with Strike Witches - Hakugin No Tsubasa, another shooter based on an anime/manga series. Exclusive and region-locked to Japanese consoles, the title is just one of several games produced to supposedly expand the reach of the base material.

Fans of the anime who can understand Japanese are at home here. The Story mode is full of (instantly skippable) dialogue intermissions and interaction between a multitude of characters. They are all teenage girls with propellers for legs, flying around with machineguns in an effort to stop an alien menace called Neuroi. It's an alternate reality setting that takes place during World War II. Luckily for us shmuppers, Arcade mode removes all the useless conversation and sudden interruptions, but the catch is that to unlock it you need to beat Story mode with one of the preset teams - and even so only the respective characters are unlocked. Continues are allowed to achieve this, and if the imposition sounds stupid at least you can take the chance to know the characters and stages during two hours and four clears (it takes roughly half an hour to complete the game).

On the outside Strike Witches looks like a combination of Trouble Shooter and Deathsmiles, but the default twin stick control scheme makes it a different experience. There's also a somewhat hidden arcade style control that doesn't use the right stick: the aim is locked whenever you shoot with a dedicated button (since the game clearly wasn't designed with this control scheme in mind I avoided it completely). All teams are comprised of three girls, with one of them being the leader and the others following her in a formation facing forwards, facing backwards or trailing. Enemies come from all sides and force the girls to move around the whole screen, with the team’s hitbox being a tiny red dot on the leader’s chest. With dual style controls the left stick is used to move, the right stick to aim and shoot. By default, RB switches the formation and LB/LT switches the leader. The last input is given by RT: it’s a special attack that combines the magical abilities of the trio into a concentrated blast that lasts as long as their power bars isn’t depleted. Each girl has her own power bar, which is not to be confused with the group's health bar.

Beware, these orange balls aren't collectible items...

All girls fly at different speeds, have different power bar recharging times and bear unique weapons, be it straight shots (vulcan, grenade, drill, intertwining wave pattern) or shots with mild spread (regular spread, w-shape spread, two machineguns). Some of them have special abilities such as homing auxiliary shots. Their weapons are always at nominal power when they’re leaders, getting down to a lower power level and a slower rate of fire whenever they’re following the lead. Different character combinations produce different special attacks, and most of the fun while learning the game is in the process of testing several teams to see which works best for you.

The scoring side of Strike Witches has two layers to be explored. The first one is collecting the crosses left by destroyed enemies, which are sucked in automatically if they’re within a certain range. The first hundred is worth 1.000 each (bronze), the second hundred is worth 10.000 each (silver) and after 200 crosses collected each one will be worth 100.000 points (golden). It’s pretty simple and straightforward. The second layer in the scoring system revolves around extracting more crosses than usual by using the special attack. Doing it is not that simple though. If all girls have their power meters full a special attack comes with invincibility (indicated by the blue aura around them, which also cancels bullets). Once the special attack is over (either because the power bar of the leader is depleted or because you let go of the trigger) the recharge process takes a few seconds to start, during which you cannot activate it again. Once the recharging starts the special attack can be used again, but this time the girls are not invincible - a special attack with invincibility is only possible when a subtle sound cue is heard, a clear signal that the recharge is finished for all of them. Important: the recharge cycle will only start if the special attack trigger is not pressed, if you keep pushing it the power bars will remain where they are and no special attacks will ever come out.

At the end of the stage the player is given a bonus based on the number of crosses collected, destroyed enemies and hits taken. Crosses × enemies × 10.000 equals nominal bonus - the more hits you suffer the less of this bonus you achieve. Speaking of getting hit, if the eight health cells are gone it’s GAME OVER. There are no recovery items (actually there are no items at all besides crosses), but the health bar is replenished at the start of every stage. This alone brings the challenge to reasonable levels even though things get quite hectic close to the end, where memorization and careful use of the special attacks become more important. Fortunately it’s possible to practice each stage separately.

Stage 4
(courtesy of YouTube user ALS384)

Given the unsuspected depth of the scoring system, the lowest point in Strike Witches is in the level design. The catchy introduction and HD renderings of the characters are cool, as well as the character art in transition screens, the good variety of weapons and the intensity of later sections in the game, but for a shooter that scrolls horizontally it’s a bit weird that there are absolutely no obstacles. All you see is the vastness of the skies according to the unique theme of each stage, with a few exceptions like the tunnel in the second level or the descent into the destroyed landscape of the fifth stage. All bosses are variations of the same enemy, a red shape-shifting creature that takes the form of jets, tanks, spiders and all kinds of mechanical things. The objective is to defeat each successive form to expose and destroy its pink core. Even though these bosses have the most varied shot and movement patterns, it gets tiring to see the same checkerboard textures at the end of every level. On top of that, every single enemy is red or dark with red details. Was it so hard to put some green or blue?

Another aspect that bugs me a little is character speed. Even the slowest girl still moves too fast for my taste. When enemies swarm from all sides the act of dodging often results in a collision because I can’t control my leader properly, and the best way to deal with it is to be proactive so that dodging becomes less necessary. Sometimes a hit will take away two health cells, particularly when the offenders are those pesky lasers or when you get rammed by a large enemy. Lastly, I don’t mind the fact the menus are all in Japanese, but I wish the developer had added actual Roman names to the characters in the Arcade mode selection screen. It’s tough to memorize all of them going just by their cute faces.

 Click for a larger picture of the menus translation for Strike Witches
(many thanks to Jorge and SoftOtaku)

Is bland design enough to qualify the game as pure fan service? I don’t think so. Overall Strike Witches comes out as a feeble yet mildly fun shooter. Non-shmuppers will be able to credit-feed to the end, but will have no access to the true last boss (only prerequisite is to get there on a single credit). Although simple, the scoring system is engaging and offers enough depth for those who play for higher stakes, so the game at least tries to cater to all kinds of gamers. The music isn’t remarkable but fares better than the misguided graphic design. Be prepared for loads of anime voices though.

The only extra in the limited edition of Strike Witches for the Xbox 360 is a figurine of protagonist Yoshika Miyafuji. The game wasn't very well received by the shmup community, but the popularity of the series was enough to guarantee a port for the PSP in 2012. On the 360 my best high score in Arcade mode on NORMAL is the one below, playing with Gertrud Barkhorn, Lynette Bishop and Perrine Clostermann. Perrine is a must for me because of her electrified homing shots!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Hyper Duel (Saturn)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
8 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Technosoft
Published by Technosoft in 1996

All well-known shmup developers originated in the arcade scene. Technosoft is unique in this regard, in that the company’s core base was always in the home console market. Hyper Duel was just the second but also the last arcade game made by them. For those wondering, the only other arcade title Technosoft developed was Thunder Force AC, a market afterthought built on the phenomenal success of Thunder Force III. Contrary to what some people think, Blast Wind was never released for the arcades.

The Saturn port for Hyper Duel came out a couple of years after the arcade original and quickly became one of the rarest and most sought after shooters for the system. It’s undeniable that the game carries a strong Thunder Force vibe, with the same type of fast-paced action and graphics that somewhat resemble that series. Hyper Duel is a reasonably shorter shmup though, and it’s a got a different kind of challenge since it’s obviously aimed at coin eating. The best thing about the port is that the CD includes both the unaltered arcade version and an updated Saturn mode with enhanced graphics and difficulty. It’s pretty much the same game but the tweaks are all for the better, and the exclusive arrange version practically justifies the hype if you’re a Technosoft fan. For those who dig extra stuff in their ports, let it be known that the package also comes with a nice animated intro and additional save functionality for playtime stats.

In order to have a clearer idea of the differences between both iterations of the game I decided to tackle the arcade version first, playing the Saturn mode only after I had cleared it. Basics are the same for both versions, starting with the three “buster-gear” ships available for selection, so I’ll describe the features of the arcade mode first.

Inside this badass red robot is a lovely 21 year-old girl

All pilots/ships are capable of battling the enemy in two forms: ship and armor. Button A activates ship mode and fires the default pattern for each character. Button B activates armor mode and turns the ship into a slow-moving robot capable of firing a thicker beam in different angles. While the ship form allows the player to move faster and actually dodge stuff, the armor form sacrifices speed and size in favor of power and coverage. It’s possible to shoot at 45 degrees up and down by moving up and down, whereas any horizontal displacement doesn’t affect the beam’s direction. The problem with the armor form is that controlling it is a cumbersome task, and should only be done once the enemy pattern is thoroughly known.

Special attacks are triggered by combining both shot types. While in ship form, press the armor button to deploy two stationary orbs above and below the ship to shoot an extra rotating fire pattern. While in armor form, press the ship button to deploy two rotating orbs that add extra firepower to the armor beam. Special attacks are gauged by an energy meter that either refills itself slowly or gets refilled by a good chunk if you take a B item. Besides their obvious offensive nature, special attacks are also good for defense because the orbs are capable of absorbing enemy bullets, even if the special attack meter is empty.

Ship/armor is powered up by taking the P items brought by destroyed carriers. It takes three to achieve maximum power, and small but helpful homing missiles are granted with the second power-up. Sometimes the carriers will drop an item that cycles between T and G, which generate helpers that follow the ship around and provide automatic extra firepower. T (Tracer) creates a small ship that hovers around you and shoots forward, while G (Gunner) creates a smaller independent mecha that aims and shoots at enemies at will. It’s possible to have up to three of these following you around, and each helper can take five hits before dying. Gunners are good to deal with slow enemies, but they’re quite unpredictable. Sometimes they’ll drift off screen for a long spell and return all of a sudden, or stupidly get in the way of enemies and bullets. Tracers are a good choice if you’re able to keep a safe distance from enemies and destroy them before they shoot.

As I mentioned above, the fast paced style of Hyper Duel lends itself to open comparisons with the Thunder Force series, but because of its arcade origins Hyper Duel is a much more straightforward experience. All stages are short but never dull, demanding aggressive play and constant use of the special attacks, either because of enemies that appear from behind or in response to enemies that threaten to dangerously clutter the screen. There’s a progression between stages that sees the ship/mecha starting in outer space, scrambling across tunnels, descending and taking off from planet landscapes and facing a huge spaceship at the end. All of this is infused with varying difficulty, which makes Hyper Duel the only Technosoft shooter that adopts a rank system. It’s quite simple: live longer and face stronger enemies and bullets. Rank isn’t that taxing in the arcade version though, at least when compared to the Saturn version.

Introduction and initial stages of Hyper Duel - Sega Saturn version
(courtesy of YouTube user LonerGamerBlogspot)

The best thing about the Saturn arrange mode is that it allows the player to lock the armor weapon in place with a third button, thus eliminating an inherent weakness of the arcade version’s gameplay. The game as a whole is prettier, with a lot more color and much better music. On the other hand, rank is definitely more aggressive and further heightens the challenge. There’s a notorious increase in difficulty on bosses, for instance. The 6th one spits even more bullets, and the odds of surviving the final battle are only in your favor if you manage to get there with a good number of spare lives. That’s why the two extends at 500.000 and 1,5 million points are very much welcome.

Pilots Keith, Lisa and Lloyd are all equally fine, but Lloyd is the most unbalanced one - he’s got the most powerful ship form but his armor weapon has a very limited range. Keith’s trademark is a spread pattern, with Lisa standing between the colleagues with a focused laser shot. She’s the fastest and doc Lloyd’s the slowest, but speed isn’t really a defining characteristic when choosing the pilot. Lisa does have the best special attack when in ship mode, which is good to kill those stray drones and secure that perfect bonus. By the way, this bonus is just one of the features that comprise the scoring system of Hyper Duel. Other rewards when a boss is beaten include a stage completion bonus, 10.000 points for each helper that comes out alive and another bonus based on the energy left in the special attack meter. Don’t forget that whenever you stop moving the score counter increases slowly (roughly 100 points for each 3 seconds). Lastly, watch out for the floating crates of the 5th stage, which unfolds like a bonus level: each chip you take after destroying them is eventually worth 10.000 points; if you just crack a crate open without destroying it chips keep coming out until it leaves the screen. All scoring techniques are the same for both game versions.

Although solid and relatively fun, Hyper Duel barely escapes the fate of being a drab shooter due to a couple of very recognizable difficulty spikes and a scoring system that encourages greed (when stupid deaths abound). While the rest of the game is fairly manageable, defeating bosses 6 and 8 is always nerve-wrecking. It’s really cool to have the 4th boss fighting alongside you during the final showdown though, you almost feel bad when he’s assimilated by that evil creature.

I beat Arcade mode with Lisa and Saturn mode with Keith, both on NORMAL, respective pictures below.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Gradius II (NES)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1988

First there was Gradius, the absolute classic. Then came Salamander/Life Force, the bastard albeit sympathetic off-shoot. And here we have Gradius II, the sequel to the original game. Contrary to what anyone would think given the massive success of the first chapter, this particular port never left Japan. I was always intrigued by this, but now I have some foggy theories for why Konami didn’t bother to bring it over from Famicom to NES territory.

Arcade Gradius II is a very polished shooter that excels at teaching the player the meaning of failure. Adapting such material to 8-bit standards must have been tough, or at least tougher than making the same transition for Gradius. On aesthetical merits alone Gradius II on the NES is decent, downscaling the original material in an effective way while adding a few extra bits of exclusive design (my only complaint is the washed out color palette in a few sections). Where it all falls apart though is in the challenge factor. It’s as if Konami had forgotten how hard a Gradius game should be. For seasoned Gradius fans and players, Gradius II on the NES is a laughable joke because it lacks the shooter “sting” that has been a trademark of the series since it started.

Vic Viper does not appear on screen until you start a credit. There are four weapon configurations to choose from, ranging from the regular array seen in Gradius to new options with photon torpedoes in place of missiles, tail gun replacing double shot and ripple laser instead of regular laser. The old frontal shield is gone and is permanently replaced by the force field for all configurations. As the game starts the drill remains the same: collect capsules, activate the highlighted slots of the weapon array to get the upgrades and be on your guard for whatever comes your way.

Crystals are purple!

Despite the utter lack of intensity, this port deserves at least a mention for the little tweaks made to the basic gameplay. Similar to what had been previously done in Parodius, double shot/tail gun and both lasers can be powered up twice for a greater firepower level. Contrary to the limitations seen in Gradius and Salamander, here you can get up to four options instead of two (for those wondering, Life Force allows three options). Speaking of options, once you get four of them you’ll notice that the option slot in the weapon array is still available. Activate it one last time and all options will circle the ship for a brief while, practically giving it a close-range protection against nearby enemies. Last but not least, the force field is the size of the ship, so now there are no worries about depleting it just by grazing walls. It’s an ugly force field though, I wish Konami had kept the original shield.

If one considers the pre-stage (that short section with the incoming wave drones that bring capsules) as the checkpoint for the start of a level, the conclusion is that this game has six stages. Some stages of the original game were combined into one here, such as the volcano and crystal levels (3rd) and the boss rush, high speed and fortress sections (5th). Some parts have no bosses anymore (volcano and high speed), one boss was replaced with a different version (the eye-spitting reject from Salamander in the boss rush) and a new extra skull boss appears at the end of the 2nd stage. The final level is explicitly inspired by Salamander, complete with organic nets and huge, cheap spikes protruding from walls. Speaking of cheapness, the worst offenders are the first and the final stages, where you’ll inevitably die until you memorize the path amidst the flame arches and those dreadful spikes.

Another specific trait of the NES Gradius II is that pretty much anything that moves or shoots can be destroyed, including wall tentacles, tips of volcanoes and the famous mechanical spider (all originally invincible). In a fashion similar to the first game on the NES, this one has an interesting characteristic regarding the rate of fire: there’s no autofire upon start, but once you get at least one option you just need to keep the button pressed to play normally without mashing it like crazy or having to use a turbo controller.

Two stages of Gradius II
(courtesy of YouTube user tigris6003)

Flicker gets overwhelmingly present in a few key areas, such as the section with the crystal blocks, but surprisingly enough slowdown isn’t much of a problem. I was afraid it would get out of hand when Vic Viper was equipped with four options. However, this seems to have been achieved at the expense of enemy bullets since bullet count is so low that you sometimes wonder if this is really a Gradius game. Pre-stage drones, for instance, will never shoot at you. It’s clear to me that these technical compromises ultimately killed the challenge. Add to that the merciful extend scheme, where a new life is granted for every 30.000 points scored, and the lack of any difficulty rise in further loops. The only difference I noticed is in the core barriers of the boss rush main enemy, which spew bullets when destroyed.

I’ve read information saying that the cartridge uses a special chip that provides, among other things, the digitized voices you hear when an upgrade is activated (very clear voices by the way). The strangest thing is that although the voices are nice and the music is good, sound effects are rather poor. For example, there’s no sound for when your shots hit the common drones. That could be one of the reasons why the game wasn’t ported over to the west, the other one would be the butchered difficulty that put the responsible people inside Konami to shame. For much better home ports check the Saturn, the Playstation or the PC Engine CD libraries.

Surely casual players won’t care about the downgraded difficulty, but for fans of the series Gradius II for the NES ends up being nothing but a forgettable experience. It’s fun while it lasts, but it’s got virtually no replay value. When you get to the fourth loop like I did and you notice that you have 73 spare lives you know something’s terribly wrong (the mechanical spider alone is worth something close to 10 extra lives). I completed two loops unscathed and died out of boredom a few times in the 3rd loop, but got back up with little to no sweat. I turned off the console after taking the picture in stage 4-1. The game was played with the type 1 configuration, no turbo controller was used.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Blazing Star (Neo Geo)

Checkpoints OFF
7 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Yumekobo
Published by Yumekobo in 1998

Although not a proper sequel to Pulstar, Blazing Star often receives the title for its graphical similarities with the former. Both games exude excellence and are regarded as highlights of the Neo Geo hardware. However, whereas Pulstar blatantly rips off the style of Irem’s R-Type, Blazing Star adopts a more straightforward approach towards the horizontal shooter formula, free of checkpoints and with a nice array of different spaceships to choose from (among these is Dino 246, the solo protagonist from Pulstar). It also allows 2-player co-op, something the previous game lacked.

Blazing Star for the Neo Geo AES is an extremely rare item, the only rarer shmup for this system I can think of is Twinkle Star Sprites. These days it's easier to play the game since it's also been made available for the Playstation Network and tablets/smart phones. It was originally released only in Japan, and much like Zero Wing part of its old fame comes from the Engrish that plagues the game from start to finish. There’s even a line of thought claiming that the word FAIL is the popular noun/interjection that we know today because of Blazing Star. Check it here, but note that the article is wrong when it states that the meme origin relates to a GAME OVER message. The text actually refers to a taunt displayed when the player fails to kill a stage boss within the allotted time limit.

As we all (don’t really) need to know, an intergalactic war was waged between planets and a powerful enemy enslaved humans for its evil deeds. Hope is once again alive as six pilots regain consciousness and get ready to exert great justice against the alien scum. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to take on the role of one of these pilots and fly through seven stages guarded by giant transforming machines of doom. Pre-rendered sprites create a swift 3D look on several backgrounds, colors are used and abused with awesome taste and the scrolling speed/direction shifts back and forth as you go. It’s pure and intense 16-bit shooting bliss. Another fine aspect of Blazing Star is the female announcer. At first listen she might be a little annoying, but soon enough I got used to her cheering. POWER-UP! BONUS! WO-HOO! The character art/treatment could’ve been a bit more fleshed out during the game, but considering this is a shooter the animated intro does a fine job with them.

Hell-Hound takes on the 3rd boss

Players need to use only two buttons to unleash the power of any of the ships selected. The first button shoots and activates a charge shot. The second button is only used to “break” the charge shot during its animation, making it behave in a totally different manner and imposing a brief recharge delay. Power-ups (Ps) will increase firepower up to four levels, further ones are worth 300 points each. All other items in the game have explicit influence on scoring, such as the character panels that form the word LUCKY, the winged orbs/spheres and the blue gems. The implicit influence of all items in the game, on the other hand, is what makes Blazing Star an intricate dynamic challenge that needs to be thoroughly learned if you want to extract the most from its scoring system.

Here’s a rundown of all ships and their weapons:
  • Hell-Hound – regular fire: wide shots with mild spread, top and bottom home on enemies; charge: straight power stream; break: stream turns into a spread shot;
  • Windina – regular fire: wave shot; charge: 3-way cluster bomb; break: homing clusters;
  • Aryustailm – regular fire: straight shot; charge: flare; break: flare turns into a Darius-like shield;
  • Peplos – regular fire: 3-way spread shot; charge and break: slightly smaller variation of Hell-Hound's weapons (note: Peplos does not power up!);
  • Dino 135 – regular fire: 3-way straight shot with directional pods (pods will get fixed in place with fast tapping); charge: wave blast; break: wave pattern scatters out;
  • Dino 246 – regular fire: single shot with missiles and directional pods (pods will get fixed in place with fast tapping); charge: single power shot; break: cluster explosions.
All ships have distinct speeds, with differing details as to how their weapons behave. Aryustailm's charging time is longer and its break shield needs considerably more frames to be activated after the flare is out. Dino 135's break is useless. Pulstar's Dino 246 has a permanent R-Type force on its nose, but is not allowed to fire during the cooldown period after the break. Everything considered, Hell-Hound and Windina are my favorites but any of the ships is fine if you just want to blast your way through the game mindlessly. The real deal will only show up when you decide to score higher, and that comes with a healthy amount of techniques and secrets. Basic scoring devices involve (1) killing multiple enemies with the charge shot in order to apply multipliers to their base value and (2) collecting all blue gems to increase their value from 300 up to 81.560 points. It takes a lot of gems to reach the maximum bonus, and unless you’re already maxed out for a while you can’t miss a single one or else their value will go down one step for each missed gem. The rule of thumb is that a blue gem will appear for every 8th enemy/bullet destroyed.

Now we come to the more intricate techniques, the ones related to increasing the number of on-screen objects and bullets. Spheres with wings, known as event items, are the answer for this. Event items appear from time to time and are apparently useless, but there are two ways of exploiting them. First method: release a sphere (any color), take it and refrain from shooting until you hear a sound cue as it leaves the screen; the next sphere will be larger and will contain a kanji inside; take it and all enemies destroyed with the regular shot will be converted into power-ups. Second method: keep releasing spheres but don’t take them; each successive color represents a multiplier that grows from ×2 (yellow) to ×128 (rainbow); take the rainbow sphere to apply the highest multiplier on all destroyed enemies. Long story short, rank is the answer to get more enemies/objects on screen. Rank is influenced by everything but is more affected by collecting successive power-ups. The more Ps you take the higher the aggressiveness of enemies and bosses. Therefore, method one above (the kanji event item) is the main source of rank boost because it allows lots of Ps to be collected. Allied with strategic use of the rainbow sphere, high rank play is the only way to achieve higher scores. It takes lots of practice and environment control because sometimes those damn items will float into walls or out of the screen before you can get to them.

Hey, poor player, get it more!
(courtesy of YouTube user SuperJobijoba)

Unfortunately, when you go for all power-ups and high rank play there is a serious point of concern in Blazing Star. Whenever you milk the first boss for power-ups sprite flicker kicks in heavily, making it hard to see his bullet spreads. Later on flicker assumes a new dimension as you reach the last form of the 6th boss: the first few streams of pink homing bullets are invisible! The only remedy is to anticipate their trajectory as they’re spawned from the turret. Hardware abuse or deliberate design choice? The good news (?) is that aside from these two instances (1st and 6th stages) I did not run into any other flicker issues in the game, but do you want to know what’s more aggravating? There are no extends in Blazing Star. It’s just those three lives, so GET SERIOUS, DON'T BE PANIC and don’t allow yourself to die before getting to that invisible fire curtain of death.

Even with the problems above Blazing Star strikes me as a superlative shooter. The difficulty curve is somewhat unbalanced (level 5 is a breeze while levels 3 and 6 are hard-hitters) but that’s not enough to hurt the impressive attention to details, the pop-fuzzy soundtrack or the sheer intensity of the game as a whole. Let’s not forget about the little secrets, such as the process of getting the last character panel in stage 3 or the blue gem walls that are triggered if you perform certain actions. These are not intuitive at all, the best way to learn is to watch someone do them. Upon completing a stage you’re awarded a few bonuses, and if you succeed on getting LUCKY there’s an additional reward as well. However, as you make progress you'll notice that these end-of-stage rewards have little weight in the overall score.

My 1CC run was done with Windina on the MVS difficulty setting. With Windina it's possible to play the game without any autofire because gentle tapping is enough to get a decent firing rate. That's absolutely not true with the Dino ships, for instance. In any case autofire does help, so I had it available to use in certain areas (PS2 controller via a Tototek adapter – a killer combination that’s nothing less than perfect). Note how the occasional slowdown (mostly on explosions and boss fights) makes it easier to get a fast firing rate just by regular tapping. Once the credit is over a few cool stat screens are displayed, showing data such as a performance table for all stages and your final power-up level. I didn’t get to photograph them, but I noticed I had maxed out the power-up counter (255) in the credit below.